Why Rio+20 Was Still a Success – the Contribution of Business and Academic Institutions in Support of Sustainable Development and the Rio+20 Process

5 July 2012

by Jonas Haertle

On my first day after returning from the Rio+20 conference – officially the UN Conference on Sustainable Development which took place 20 years after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – I spoke to a group of MBA students at Fordham University in New York. Admittedly, the instructor had asked the class to read about the Rio+20 outcomes prior to the session, but I sensed there was a genuine interest to hear what I thought about the outcomes of the weeklong series of events in Rio de Janeiro.

Quite obviously, the main headlines and media stories about Rio+20 focused on the outcomes of the government negotiations. Many stakeholders, foremost NGOs and the media, but also some government representatives, felt that the official outcome document The Future We Want had fallen short of the expectations in light of the environmental and social challenges we face. Many had expected or hoped for more concrete and ambitious decisions by governments. And although the outcome document includes some important decisions (for example, to launch the process to create Sustainable Development Goals which are supposed to come into effect in 2015 when the Millennium Development Goals expire; the decision to take action on ocean acidification, fishing subsidies and overfishing to reverse the decline of oceans; and the decision to strengthen the UN Environment Programme), many observers criticized that the 193 UN member states had missed an important opportunity to agree on a more ambitious plan of actions.

However, apart from the government negotiations, many other stakeholder groups met at Rio+20 and  committed to far-reaching actions in support of Rio+20′s objectives. Here are some of the outcomes which you might not have read or heard about:

Prior to the arrival of heads of states and governments for the official part of Rio+20, close to 50.000 people representing NGOs, farmers, youth, scientists, business, academia and other sectors convened for numerous action-oriented meetings.

For example, the UN Global Compact, in cooperation with the Rio+20 Secretariat, the UN System and the Global Compact Local Network Brazil, convened more than 2,500 participants for the Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum. In over 100 sessions participants discussed how business representing all sectors and based in all parts of the world can help to make sustainable development a reality through their own actions. While business was at the sidelines of the original Rio 1992 Earth Summit, the 2012 Rio meeting clearly showed that businesses are committed to sustainable development. More than 200 concrete commitments for sustainable development were made by companies. Obviously, it is necessary that governments, in light of these commitments, also take further steps to incentivize the right behavior, for example through embedding environmental and social considerations into legal frameworks. For instance, the UK government announced that it would require all publicly listed companies in the UK to report on their carbon footprint as of next year. This is a step into the right direction.

Another group of actors which was clearly more visible at this year’s Rio+20 conference was the academic sector.

Similar to the businesses, academic institutions were all but absent from the original Rio 1992 Earth Summit. At Rio+20, the 3rd Global Forum for Responsible Management Education of the PRME initiative was convened as the official meeting for management-related Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). While the PRME initiative provides an ongoing platform for dialog and action for the growing community of academic institutions and stakeholders committed to sustainable development, this year’s 3rd Global Forum clearly marked a new stage in PRME’s evolution. Five years after the initiative’s launch, participants at the 3rd Global Forum agreed on a concrete strategy to help develop the initiative further for the years to come. Apart from individual steps which each PRME signatory school committed to take, some of the main recommendations for PRME as an initiative are to form a leadership group to incentivize the most engaged PRME signatory schools to go further in their implementation of sustainability principles while keeping the initiative open to institutions at all levels of engagement; to delist those signatories that fail to regularly share information on progress made in implementing PRME in order to increase the accountability of the commitment to the Principles; and to launch PRME chapters to better engage management education communities on a local and regional level. One of the objectives of the Global Forum was to give a voice to PRME signatory schools. The agreement by participants on the Rio Declaration on the Contribution of Higher Education Institutions and Management Schools to The Future We Want: A Roadmap for Management Education to 2020 showed that the Global Forum successfully provided this opportunity.

Further, based on the discussions of last year’s PRME Summit in Brussels, another objective of this year’s Global Forum was to highlight the role of external stakeholders on management education. In that regard, I was encouraged to see the frank discussion among representatives of accreditation bodies, namely AACSB, EFMD and AMBA, about the ways they are planning to embed sustainability criteria into accreditation. Also, the statement by Della Bradshaw who is responsible for the Financial Time’s business school ranking made clear that we have to encourage more schools to put greater emphasis on sustainability issues in curriculum and research so that the FT’s and other ranking systems gradually adapt to reflect responsible education and research in the ranking criteria for business schools.

Finally, the majority of participants I spoke to after the Global Forum said that they had gained some new insights as to how to further enable responsible management and leadership education as well as research in their institutions. Many told me about the new insights they had gained during coffee breaks and at the round table discussions with other participants. It is good to hear that the meeting method, which was based on a pragmatic inquiry, was so well received. Going forward, on behalf of the PRME Secretariat, we are committed to support and to work with many people in the PRME community to make the promising proposals at the Global Forum a reality.

While the 3rd Global Forum for Responsible Management Education was not the only forum at Rio+20 for academic institutions, the presence of the over 300 leaders and representatives of Higher Education Institutions and business schools contributed to the fact that the UN leadership clearly took notice of the role that educational institutions have in enabling sustainable development. One of the other driving forces for this was the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative. Together with UN organizations dedicated to educations for sustainable development (UNESCO, UNEP, and UNU), and with the technical support by Euromed Marseille, the UN Global Compact and the PRME Secretariat had invited higher education institutions to sign up to a declaration on higher education and sustainable development and to make concrete commitments in support of Rio+20. At the close of Rio+20 almost one third of all voluntary commitments at Rio+20 were received through this initiative, i.e. from academic institutions. I will probably never forget the moment, while already in Rio, when the office of the Rio+20 Executive Coordinators called me to ask if we could provide on a very short notice a speaker from one of the academic institutions which had signed the declaration for the official Rio+20 closing press conference. It was fitting that Antonio Freitas of FGV Rio, one of the leading business schools in Brazil, participated in this press conference on behalf of the initiative, as he, in his previous role as a member of Brazil’s National Commission for Higher Education (CNE), had successfully advised the Government of Brazil to pass a law that will require the entry level exams for all university students in Brazil to include questions on sustainability. The law had been passed a few days prior to Rio+20 and had been announced in presence of Brazil’s Secretary of Education at the PRME Global Forum. As another direct outcome of the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative, UNESCO agreed with the Global Compact Office and the PRME Secretariat to continue to collaborate on this initiative.

What did Governments agree on regarding the role of education?

The official outcomes document stresses the important role of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) to enable the necessary transition to sustainable development. Further, governments agreed to advocate ESD beyond 2014 which is when the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development will officially expire. My hope is that ESD will be an important building block of the Sustainable Development Goals which governments agreed to develop by 2015. For academic institutions engaged in PRME this would mean that their actions are directly aligned with the UN’s goals on Education for Sustainable Development.

To sum up, while I think that criticism of the relatively low level of ambition in the outcome document of governments at Rio+20 is justified, I also believe that one equally important aspect of Rio+20 were the discussions and agreements by the many non-governmental stakeholders. In a way, Rio+20 made clear that the world’s most pressing challenges can only be solved through better cooperation and collaboration between governments and non-governmental stakeholders and by giving a greater role to the latter in upcoming UN conferences on global issues. Governments clearly have an important role to play, most importantly by agreeing on global governance frameworks. However, as Rio+20 made clear, currently there is little to no political will to agree on far-reaching decisions on a global level between governments.  Yet, if we consider the countless non-governmental stakeholders present in Rio and the commitments many of them made to advance sustainable development in their own spheres of influence, I believe that Rio+20 actually had a positive effect.

Jonas Haertle is Head of the PRME Secretariat in the UN Global Compact Office.